Seasonal Affective Disorder and Acupuncture

Updated: Apr 5

By Daryl Fang, R.Ac

As January comes to an end and we head off to February, we realize that the festivities are over; the Christmas decorations have been put away and most of us are starting to look very closely at our list of new year resolutions. I am pretty sure, that like me, you’re probably just about done with winter by now. For the greater majority of us, this is the closest we’ll ever get to feeling a touch of the winter blues during this time of year. In a day or two, we bounce back into our routines with our emotions and daily lives intact and uninterrupted.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

However, for around 2-6% of us, the low mood will linger on for longer than just a few days and that feeling of loneliness, isolation, generalized sadness and lack of energy may become a chronic, background theme in our daily lives. And for some reason, this sadness seems most prevalent in the winter months when the amount of time spent under natural sunlight is at its lowest. This is typical of Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD as it is commonly referred to because these symptoms (which are very similar to those of depression) seem to peak during the mid to late fall and winter months when the number of daylight hours that a person is exposed to drops.

When longer daylight hours return in the early spring and summer months, most SAD sufferers tend to do better and the fatigue, low energy, heavy sadness and lingering states of lethargy seem to dissipate. When the fall and winter months roll by, the cycle starts up again and the SAD symptoms return again.

SAD doesn’t affect everyone equally. As pointed out earlier, 2-6% of the general population has this disorder. Data seems to support the general observation that most SAD. Is there something that can be done to help alleviate the severity of SAD? There are actually quite a few options that a person with SAD can choose from. One of the most popular choices of treatment is using a SAD light or lamp that a person can sit facing (or sit under) to expose themselves to bright light of a certain frequency for short periods of time during the winter. This provides relief from the moodiness that tends to accompany the darker cloudier winter days when a person’s chances of natural light exposure drops. Another option is medication whereby, after a discussion with one’s GP or primary healthcare provider, a patient is prescribed specific anti-depressive medication to help him/her regulate their moods during the fall and winter months.

Alternative SAD Treatment

Alternative options are also available and this is where Acupuncture falls under as one of the viable alternatives to medication for managing the effects of SAD. How does it work?

Yin and Yang of the Seasons

One needs to start off with a basic understanding of Yin and Yang. Yin represents all things cold, quiet, retiring, dark and winter. Yang represents the elements that are the opposite of Yin: hot, loud, expanding, light and summer. They balance each other not only in the natural world but also within the human body.

The warmer seasons of the year (spring and summer) can be thought of as yang energy seasons. In the spring and summer, energies expand outwards and the emphasis of this expansive energy is placed on growth, movement forwards and asserting oneself in the world. One’s thoughts and emotions, much like the budding trees and flowers, also expand outwards in a growth-oriented fashion and make themselves known in a much more “yang-focused” manner. Hence, we tend to generally experience an exuberance and increase in energy or mood during the warmer months of the year.

However, when we think of winter, we usually start thinking of a period of retraction and of going inwards. It is a time when things die off or where plants shrink and animals go into deep slumber. Just as flowers lose their petals and trees, their leaves, we too tend to retract and quiet down our moods and conserve energy levels. Hence you may notice that as the mid-winter draws near, moods and enthusiasm levels shrink. It is almost as if it is going deep into the core during the darker, colder and quieter winter; leaving you feeling more introspective, inwards looking and yes, sometimes feeling a little sad as a result.

Acupuncture and Alleviating SAD

Acupuncture can be a very effective method of treatment for SAD during the long winter months. Some people report a significant increase in energy levels and mood following as little as their first or second acupuncture treatments for mood elevation, SAD or depression / anxiety, making this a great form of natural treatment during the cold and dark winter (especially when conventional drug therapies such as anti-depressants are not deemed appropriate for the patient).

Acupuncture is often employed to move stagnation in the body’s energy pathways or meridians. Stagnation can be thought of as an area where energy tends to accumulate and grow but cannot move. Think of a hose in which one end has been stopped off and water is allowed to collect and accumulate. At some point the hose will bulge as water pressure starts to build resulting in a rather misshaped hump where the water has collected. The only way to alleviate this is to remove the stopper and allow the pressure to release and escape.

This may be an analogy but it is how acupuncture works to help relieve the pressure buildup from unchecked emotions that have been allowed to collect over a long period of time and which get ignored (due to work, life, interpersonal relationships). In the warmer, Yang months, we are more naturally active and these unchecked emotions tend to find a way to get released and moved out of the body and mind through exercise and more physical activity.

In the colder, Yin winter months, we move less and are slower and more deliberate in our actions. Difficult, unchecked emotions tend to move like we do during this time; slowly and sluggishly. If we don’t have enough downtime with ourselves to keep the emotions in check, we tend to allow them to accumulate and stagnate. At some point this is like the hose in which water has been allowed to accumulate with no relief in sight at the other end of the hose which has been stoppered up.

When Yin energy (sadness, heaviness, fatigue and lack of movement/exercise) accumulates in the darker winter, there is a relative abundance of Yin compared to Yang energy. You may not notice it initially when the days start getting shorter in the fall. But over time and with a slowing down of activity and less care being placed on self check-in time, Yin energies start to accumulate to the point where there is more Yin than the more outgoing and positive Yang energies that we had access to in the summer.

When they accumulate to the point where our moods stay at a low and we cannot seem to “snap out of our winter funk”, this is what is termed Stagnation in Chinese Medicine practice. Acupuncture is used as a method of moving these collected unchecked emotions. It acts as the method with which the end of the hose that is sealed gets freed up and the water (or overly abundant Yin emotional energies) is allowed to run free again and balance between the Yang and the Yin of the body is restored. This is done with acupuncture needles which are inserted along specific meridians or energy pathways of the body in order to move these emotional stagnations.

Meridians that are commonly selected for treating SAD symptoms are Liver, Lung and Kidney Channels. There are several reasons why these channels are selected and another article will be required to more fully explain them. However, in a nutshell, Liver, Lung and Kidney Channels are often employed because: stagnations tend to occur most often due to Liver Channel obstructions and because Liver is often associated with the emotions of anger and frustration; Lung is associated with sadness letting go and the season of fall (often when daylight hours start to decrease); and Kidney is associated with the cold and winter.

The number of treatments required to treat SAD varies and can range from as little as 8-10 weekly treatments (dropping down to a more “maintenance schedule” of once every two weeks) to 16-20 weekly treatments for the entire duration of the winter for more severe cases. It is advisable to start around mid to late fall as daylight levels start to drop and we spend more of our days in darkness. Treatments taper off as soon as the patient reports a decrease in severity of symptoms and they start to feel more motivation, energy, focus and and increase in optimism and mood. Once the daylight starts returning and the patient’s mood starts lifting, treatments are discontinued and if needed, they are restarted again in the late fall of that same year.

Everything happens in cycles within a Chinese Medicine framework. The best way forward in seasonal treatments is to work with the seasons. In the case of SAD, decreasing the Yin and increasing the Yang during the Yin winter and vice versa during the Yang summer.

What’s Next?

Are you interested in acupuncture?  Daryl Fang would be happy to answer your questions! Learn more on how Traditional Chinese Medicine and can help you stay healthy this winter! Contact us to book a complimentary 15 minute consultation.

Book an appointment online. Contact us: 416.214.9251,


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